MeFi Writers, Help Me With a Personal Writing Project
September 18, 2014 5:53 PM   Subscribe

I'm taking next week off to do two things. The first is to develop some habits that are conducive to me writing continually, daily and with presentable results. The second is to actually have a product by the end of the week. I'm thinking one good and fairly polished short story. Please give me advice and ideas about how to accomplish this. Do you need a place to work that is for "writing only"? Do you have a daily routine? Did you have to develop self-discipline? Do you have rituals like meditation or having tea or writing by candle light? Do you listen to music? With an entire week to do whatever I want, how do I best use my time for writing?

This may not be important, but just to give you an idea of what you're working with, I've reinvented myself quite a few times in my 45 years. I've been traveler, a surfer/waterman, a musician, a photographer to name a few. The point is that those things came pretty easily for me. Writing does not. I'm more afraid of writing than of paddling out into huge Northern California winter storm surf.

It's time for me to get over that and make it a part of my life. Please help me do this.

Many thanks in advance.
posted by snsranch to Writing & Language (12 answers total) 28 users marked this as a favorite
I'll tell you what helps me: having a deadline.

"Get that story in by 5:00 p.m. Tuesday, because we go to the printers."

"Paper due Friday the 13th, or else you get an 'F'."

"You get paid by the word, and I need X number of pages by Monday."

Now: write me a story about being a traveler/surfer/waterman/musician, and I want it snappy and full of life. Get it to me by Monday at noon. Make sure it's edited and proofread. I don't care if you light candles, incense, or drink whisky for 4 days, I want to see that story. Oh, and by the way, your limit is 600 words.
posted by Marie Mon Dieu at 6:19 PM on September 18, 2014 [5 favorites]

Best answer: I don't have a particular place that's for writing only, but there are times I can't get into 'writing mode' in my usual setup (either desktop computer or iPad with keyboard case) so I write longhand on my bed or on the couch.

I have a daily(-ish) routine, but it adapts and changes as things change in my life or my process. Currently my routine is to write at least one page starting around 8:00 in the evening, then take a break, then write at least one more page. I give myself permission to miss a day or two a week -- if I put a lot of pressure on myself to write every day, then I get really anxious and stressed out especially on days when it's hard for me to make page count (one day a week I'm out of the house from 8:00 a.m. to 9:00 p.m.), and if I give myself too much slack then I can't get into the story. (Two pages longhand, for me, is about 600-650 words. This isn't much -- a lot of writers have a target more like 1000 -- but it's hard for me to stay focused long enough to write more than that.)

It will be hard, especially at first, to stay focused for a long time. If I really need to write a lot, I try to write in both the morning and the evening, to have some buffer time in between.

I try not to get too precious about rituals but I also try to listen to what my mind tells me I need to sit down and write. If I'm fidgety I'll make tea - which doesn't make me less fidgety, but sort of serves as a line between 'goofing off on the internet time' and 'writing time.' If I'm anxious, I'll meditate. (Or more often, some combination of meditation and daydreaming around the story). I'll put on acoustic music or ambient music very low, and at some point I'll realize I can't hear what's going on in my head clearly and I'll turn it off.

Some writers need time to pre-plan, and others don't plan much. Some writers write really messy first drafts and spend a lot of time on rewrites; some writers don't start their first drafts until they have a pretty good idea of where they're going, and rewrite less. Writing is an individual thing, and what works for you is not necessarily what works for somebody else. Try things one way, and if they don't work, try things a different way.

One week may not be long enough to have a polished story. It might, though, be long enough to learn a lot about what kinds of writing methods work for you.
posted by Jeanne at 6:39 PM on September 18, 2014 [3 favorites]

Write the high points. That is, just write the moments/scenes/conversations that interest you, without regard to plot or character or flow, and don't worry about tying them all together this week. You can do that later.
posted by LonnieK at 6:50 PM on September 18, 2014 [3 favorites]

Don't forget to get some exercise and fresh air. It can help provide fresh perspective.
posted by aniola at 8:11 PM on September 18, 2014

Best answer: So hi! I'm a professional writer. I have no rituals. Like Marie Mon Dieu says, I have deadlines. If I had rituals, I'd never get anything done at all. I juggle multiple projects for clients and my own independent work, plus a busy family life. I have to snatch at the writing time I get whenever it happens to present itself.

The only way to write is to write. If you're going to write, what pen you're using, what the light is like, or the weather, or the music, aren't going to matter. You can write in a coffee shop, at a kitchen table, in bed. But if you weren't going to write anyway, you've established a whole range of excuses for not writing because it doesn't "feel right."

I've written when I'm full of juice and my brain is on fire with ideas. I've written when it's like chiseling granite from the bones of the earth. You can't tell which day was which when you read it a year later.

Decide what time you are planning on writing, and do nothing else during that time except writing, whether you feel like it or not. This is the completely boring and unsexy and true answer. There's no secret. You just have to decide to do it, and then start doing it, and then keep doing it.
posted by Andrhia at 8:23 PM on September 18, 2014 [11 favorites]

Writing sometimes feels like pulling teeth for me too, but seconding aniola, whenever you feel yourself getting tired, frustrated or blocked go for a brisk walk.
posted by Middlemarch at 10:28 PM on September 18, 2014

Best answer: Hi! Thanks for posting. I am also a published writer (mostly in poetry and short fiction), have an MFA, and have taught creative writing a bit. You've already received some good advice from others, and I wholeheartedly agree with the advice about not being too precious in your rituals. Chuck Pahlaniuk has said that he writes in airports and places like that because that is where his books will be read. I write at home, in coffee shops, in bars, in hospital rooms when I am there for some reason, on the porch at my parent's house, in my head on public transportation.

The biggest caveat I'd give you before you take your time off is to squeeze in as much writing as you can before then. A lot of people will, say, go up to a cabin to write their great American novel, but they haven't been "training" for it, so to speak, and they get frustrated really easily. Even if you can only manage to journal a couple hundred words a day before then, that's something.

Plan and outline as best you can, but also expect mutiny from your characters. They love to go rogue. It means you're doing it right.

Some people disable their Internet connection when writing. I do an absurd amount of research and fact checking, so I never could, but know that's an option.

Not all stories are birthed the same. I have stories I've written in an hour and stories that have taken a year or more to write. Try not to judge. There are lots of reasons which don't have anything to do with your ability as a writer that a story could take longer. Also, some of the days I make the most progress on a story are when I don't work on it, yet figure out the solution to a big problem with it.

What I really can't stress enough is to write something you yourself would enjoy reading. If you have an interest in it aside from wanting to write a story, that will come through. And only you have your particular set of interests and knowledge and feelings and jokes and quirks. Honor those.

That being said, the best stories usually come of writers attempting to write what they don't know. By that, I don't mean to write about performing open heart surgery, but if you can include a topic that you have complicated feelings about yourself, that makes for a much more meaty story than one where morality is black and white and people are sure of themselves.

Reread some of your favorite short stories and really observe the craft in them. Take notes if you need to, and liberally think about what you could steal from the story. I used an Amy Hempel story I love as a kind of template for a story once and would just go back to it every time I got stuck.

I haven't come up with any productivity system for most of the writing I do. If I am writing poetry, it's silly to consider word count. And lately I write a lot of flash fiction (under 1000 words), so in those stories often the mark of a good flash is what you leave out.

Again, don't be too precious about your rituals, but also don't be afraid to use anything that will help you write, with the possible exception of heroin.
posted by mermaidcafe at 1:33 AM on September 19, 2014 [5 favorites]

Best answer: I've been traveler, a surfer/waterman, a musician, a photographer to name a few. The point is that those things came pretty easily for me. Writing does not.

I really like the point William Zinsser makes in one of his books: Writing is not a distinct thing that is separate from everything else, but rather is a tool and a discipline that applies to all things. So you can write about travel or surfing or music or photography, and writing about those things is the way you deepen your understanding of them. (Check out the book "Writing to Learn.")

Have you given thought to what you want to write about, and why you feel compelled to write at this time? I think those are valuable questions to explore during this week.
posted by jbickers at 6:25 AM on September 19, 2014 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Everything except the very hard discipline of making yourself actually do the writing is accessory fetish. It's not going to be glamorous and it's not going to be zen. It's really hard work, it's lonely and frustrating, and it takes a long while to get anywhere.

And don't expect a "polished" short story in a week; it won't happen and you'll just discourage yourself. Expect to have to write the first draft of a dozen or more stories before you have one that's worth the effort of a few more drafts to make polished.

Once you've been writing every day or a few times a week for a while -- many months, a year, a few years -- you'll discover by trial and error if there are little habits like location, favorite pen or paper, drinking tea, etc., that make it slightly less unpleasant, and if you do, then great, go with them.
posted by aught at 6:47 AM on September 19, 2014

Anne Dillard has said this in a variety of forms: Write as though you were going to die tomorrow.
Write as though this is the story you have to tell before you die at the end of the week. Write in a burst of passion that lasts until you can't maintain it and must sleep.
Put another way, before you start, choose a story you have to tell.
Metaphorically: get on that surfboard, paddle far out to sea because you have decided to commit suicide. Change your mind and, against impossible odds, get back to shore.
posted by dances_with_sneetches at 8:07 AM on September 19, 2014 [3 favorites]

Best answer: Generally it takes more than two weeks to develop a new habit.

Also, if you take an entire week to write a short story I think you will find it frustrating.

I'd try to do some exercises first. Like write a story in an hour. Speed write that thing. Then set it aside. Now do another, but take two hours. Do this for you entire first few days of writing. Knock out a half dozen stories. Objective is to set the bar low so it's not intimidating, but to also have a deadline and clock so you produce.

Remember, ideas are easy. It's keeping your ass in the chair that's hard.

Blank pages suck, so write any line that pops into your head. Even if that's what you write. "This page is no longer black."

Have fun with it. Writing should be fun.

Whatever you produce don't be afraid to show it, but don't show it or talk about it until it's done. I find if I have a story I want to tell the surest way to tell it only once is to tell another person about it before putting it on paper.

I could go on, could write a book, but there are already tons of them out there.
posted by cjorgensen at 10:41 AM on September 19, 2014 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thanks to everyone for taking the time to comment. This has completely changed my perspective and expectations. I needed that.

I feel like I've just had a great send-off to a place I've never been by people who have and know it well. I'm very glad that I came here first.
posted by snsranch at 4:42 PM on September 19, 2014

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